By Dave Shedloski
With the drama-filled West Coast swing in the books, the PGA TOUR heads across the continental U.S., to the state of Florida for the $6.6 million Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where all sorts of big names will congregate.
Rickie Fowler is the defending champion and is among 12 of the top 25 in the Official World Golf Ranking preparing to take on the challenging Champion Course designed by Jack Nicklaus. Tiger Woods continues his comeback, hoping for better results than he found at Riviera, where he missed the cut. It is his first appearance near his adopted home of Jupiter, Florida, since 2014.
The field also includes FedExCup champion, Justin Thomas, and the man he unseated for that title, Rory McIlroy, making his third straight start. Masters champion, Sergio Garcia, makes his first U.S. start of the year to add to the list of top talent.
Fowler seeks to become the first back-to-back winner of this event since Nicklaus in 1977-78, when it was the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic. He’d be the first, of course, at the Champion Course, a rather menacing par-70 layout of 7,140 yards that first hosted The Honda Classic in 2007. A difficult track with its many water hazards and its usually windy conditions, the Champion Course has seen its share of big events, including the 1971 PGA Championship (won by Nicklaus), the 1987 PGA (won by Larry Nelson), the 1983 Ryder Cup (won by a Nicklaus-captained U.S. squad), and several Senior PGA Championships.
The original layout was designed by George and Tom Fazio. Nicklaus redesigned it in 1990. Among his changes was the creation of the water-laden “Bear Trap” consisting of holes 15, 16 and 17, a short but tough par-4 sandwiched between nerve-racking par-3s. The field is 2,973 over par on those three holes collectively since ’07.
CBS Sports lead golf analyst Sir Nick Faldo breaks down the storylines, as CBS prepares to broadcast The Honda Classic for the first time since 1982.
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The PGA TOUR goes from one difficult layout to another, but this week poor shots could be penalized more severely with all the water hazards. Talk about the challenge at PGA National.
I played the 1983 Ryder Cup there and the 1987 PGA Championship, but that was before Jack changed it. You have the Bear Trap now and a lot of danger lurking. Getting up and down isn’t going to be very easy. The wind regularly blows 20 mph and pushes the ball all over the place. You need to ride the wind where possible and take advantage of your good chances. The rest is about patience, really, because everyone is going to have a few hiccups along the way.
This field compares favorably to some of the strong fields on the West Coast, including 15 of the top 30 in the FedExCup standings. How much of that is about this event and how much about preparing for the year’s first major?
Back in my day, of course, the thought process was that once you got to Florida, that kicked off preparation for the Masters. But they are all over the place coming up. They go to Mexico next week, and after two more in Florida, they are in Texas. It’s in the back of their minds, but this event is well attended because they know the field will be good and they like the golf course. It has become very popular on its own strength. And Florida gives the guys a chance to get into some warmer weather.
Rickie Fowler hasn’t won since this event last year, and he’s had his chances, including the 54-hole lead at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. What is the element that is missing from his game that keeps him from closing?
First off, people don’t realize just how hard it is to close out a tournament. You can’t just ease your way into the clubhouse and play it safe. You can’t play it too safe because someone is likely to pass you. In the case of Rickie, he plays beautifully. He has a wonderful short game with lovely touch. He sets himself up well. But everyone has their own hurdles, some physical and some mental, and it’s hard to say what keeps him from closing. But it could be nothing more than not having a safe shot when the pressure is on. I’ve noticed that a couple of times.
We’ve seen some good and not so good from Tiger Woods. Was last week more useful than people think because he learned more about what he needs to work on?
He does need a decent week. One question is how much disappointment can he handle. He’s come out with a lot of enthusiasm to play, but you want to see results. After Torrey Pines he had two weeks off, and you wondered what was he going to put his finger on to fine-tune. And then he went out there and made 12 bogeys and a double in 36 holes at Riviera. That would deflate anybody. So the question becomes, how many knocks can you take? It will be interesting to see what his resilience will be. If he has another poor week, then he has to be thinking, “Blimey, what am I doing?”
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Another player on the comeback trail is Rory McIlroy. How has he looked to you thus far?
He’s a guy who plays with emotion. All he has to do is find his spring. He had it in those first two events in the Middle East, so he knows he’s got it in there and he can do it. I’m sure getting away from those poa annua greens will be a relief. That’s something we don’t see in Europe. Rory is fine, and if he matches up those great drives with some good wedge play, then he’s going to be in good shape.
Favorites and dark horses?
I am looking for guys who can flight it low. Maybe Louis Oosthuizen for one. Ryan Palmer, out of Texas, handled the wind well at Torrey Pines. For a dark horse, I like Keegan Bradley. He’s got a decent track record there and can handle the wind as well.
Journalist and author David Shedloski of Columbus, Ohio, has been covering golf since 1986, first as a daily newspaper reporter and later as a freelance writer for various magazines and Internet outlets. A winner of 23 national writing awards, including 20 for golf coverage, Shedloski is currently a contributing writer for Golf World and GolfDigest.com and serves as editorial director for The Memorial, the official magazine of the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. He is the author of five books and has contributed to three others, including the second edition of “Golf For Dummies,” with Gary McCord. His last book was a collaboration with Arnold Palmer for his final autobiography, “A Life Well Played,” published in 2016. He’s a fan of all Cleveland professional sports teams, the poor fellow.